Genetic adaptation in chimpanzee subspecies

Theme: Evolution & Adaptation
Primary Supervisor:

Aida Andres

Genetics, Evolution and Environment, UCL

Secondary Supervisor:

Francois Balloux

Genetics Institute, UCL

Project Description:

Humans belong to great apes together with our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, which are all critically endangered. Recent genomic work has improved our understanding of the demographic and long-term adaptive history of non-human great apes, but little is known about their recent local genetic adaptations. Knowing how these species have adapted to their ecological niches is critical to understanding their evolution and adaptive potential, and it is urgently required given the rapid changes to their habitats that puts them all on the brink of extinction.

Preliminary results from our group, based on whole genome sequences from individuals in African sanctuaries, suggest that chimpanzee subspecies differ in the degree to which they have experienced recent, local genetic adaptations. Nevertheless, we lack information on the ecological niche of each individual, so we cannot determine which environmental pressures were responsible for the inferred genetic adaptations.

We are interested in extending this initial work using a larger genomic dataset obtained from samples of known geographic origin, for which key environmental variables (e.g. climate, diet or pathogen exposure) have been directly assessed by our collaborators. We will focus on inferring which environmental variables can best explain the previously identified genetic adaptations, and to combine genetic and environmental data to identify new instances of differential adaptation among subspecies. We will also extend the investigation of patterns of adaptation across great ape species (i.e. gorillas and orangutans), as well as other primates.

Policy Impact of Research:

Like many other species, chimpanzee groups are under selective pressure to adapt to a rapidly changing environment. We aim to identify the most relevant phenotypic and adaptive differences among subspecies, which can impact the management of natural and captive chimpanzees. Further, our insights will apply not only to recent adaptation in chimpanzees, but more generally to populations of endangered species in rapidly changing habitats.

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